HOTSEAT- Obsessive love: Lee Smith happy to be back in town

Lee Smith spent Valentine's Day in a shack in north Florida with her husband, Hal Crowther, and two big dogs. 

"We decided to run away," she tells The Hook. "We met on Valentine's Day 25 years ago."

Obsessive love brings her to the Virginia Festival of the Book– it's the theme of her latest book, On Agate Hill, which, she says, was inspired by her historic house in historic Hillsborough, North Carolina.

"For any novelist, the words you most want to hear are, 'Let me come over and tell you about your house,'" she laughs.

  The Grundy native has long mined her Appalachian roots with charm and humor. What she's not laughing about: the dire straits  of mid-list writers.

"Fewer and fewer people are reading serious fiction," she says. "Anybody who's reading me and wants to ask a question, I'm thrilled."

She's written 12 books but says she has probably supported herself with her writing only in the past 10 years. Now retired from teaching at North Carolina State, Smith passes her father's advice on to wannabe novelists: Keep your day job. 

And her suggestion for the perfect career to support a writing addiction: "Raise catfish."

Age: 62

What do you like best about Charlottesville?  All the memories that come back whenever I'm in town– I see myself running along the stone walls with a stick when I was a little girl, in town with various relatives who were always bringing each other over here from southwest Virginia for operations at the hospital (for a long time I thought Charlottesville was the only place in the world where they even did operations)– and it was a long way, eight hours in a car from Grundy, the mining town where I was growing up; much later, hanging onto a motorcycle behind a blind date who rode straight up the steps and inside his fraternity house; then go-go dancing in my white boots with the "Virginia Wolves" from Hollins, an all-girl rock band. My go-go name was Candy Love. I could go on and on: locking myself in a bathroom to get away from James Dickey, for instance. Maybe I will stop now.

Least:  A certain, shall we say, snootiness. My mother used to tell a wonderful story about one of her suitors who "went to the University and never got over it."

Favorite hangout: Hard to say– both the campus and the town itself have such a wonderful feeling about them. In autumn, there's just nothing like it.

Most overrated virtue:  Too much glorification of "the past," perhaps?

People would be surprised to know: I own a sushi bar in Carrboro, NC– which is really the arty end of Chapel Hill. (We like to think of it as the "Paris of the Piedmont.") The sushi bar is named Akai Hana– please come!– great sushi and jazz, too. 

What would you change about yourself: Oh, so many things! On a strictly practical level, I'd try to move into this century more: I would somehow understand technology at least a little bit.

Proudest accomplishment: I recently taught my dog Betty to sing "Rocky Top."

People find most annoying about you: Apparently I seem too cheerful, but that's not entirely true. I'm actually balancing out my husband; he's the kind of guy who not only sees the glass as half empty, he thinks the water smells funny, too. (That's his line!)

Whom do you admire: Dolly Parton, Hillary Clinton, Alice Munro

Favorite book: I have a lot– To the Lighthouse, Jane Eyre, Eudora Welty's stories, Absalom, Absalom, for instance. These are among the books that really hold up– you get something new out of them every time you read them.

Subject that causes you to rant: George Bush

Biggest 21st century thrill: Really good bread, really good coffee, almost everywhere

Biggest 21st century creep-out: Technology. I'm a very, very low-tech person, married to a Luddite. We do not have, for instance, a microwave.

What do you drive? Volvo wagon (The white-wine liberal truth comes out!)

In your car CD player right now: Austin Lounge Lizards

Next journey: Sicily

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I'm not touching this one.

Regret: I'm among the singing impaired; my family often refers to me as "Tuneslayer." If I could sing, I would have been a country singer, and I never would have written any of these books at all. 

Favorite comfort food: Shrimp and grits

Always in your refrigerator: Wine and Lipton green tea

Must-see TV: I don't watch TV, actually. In fact, I can't turn it on. I never can seem to get rid of that little menu grid thing.

Describe a perfect day: I would get to stay at home all day. I would get up early and walk downtown to Cup A Joe and hang out for a little while and drink a lot of coffee, then I would write for as long as I could stand it, then I would read for a while, then I would walk the dogs for 2-3 miles, then my husband and I would cook dinner (he would make risotto), then we would watch a movie. Oh, and I would have had a martini and a pedicure somewhere in there, too, as well as a nap.  (None of my days are like this.)

Walter Mitty fantasy: I can sing; I'm a famous country star; Dolly Parton is my best friend.

Who'd play you in the movie: I would play myself. Steve Earle would play my husband, or perhaps George Clooney.

Most embarrassing moment: This happened onstage in New Orleans. I thought I was at the Tennessee Williams Festival, but actually I was at the William Faulkner Festival, and I just kept rattling on and on about The Glass Menagerie while everybody stared at me.

Favorite bumper sticker: For a motorcycle, it's "If You Can Read This, the Bitch Fell Off."

Best advice you ever got: People have frequently said to me, "Lee, shut up." Which I will do right now.

[Lee Smith reads from On Agate Hill at 8pm March 24 at the Albemarle County Office Building.]

Lee Smith